I came back home to hear about the horrific bush fires in the Gippsland and Yarra areas of Victoria over the weekend. One hundred and eighty one people have lost their lives (and that number is increasing by the hour), many more have been severely burnt (with reports that the burn cases are far worse than those in the Bali terrorist bombings), 750 homes have been destroyed, thousands of animals have died or been injured, hundreds of thousands of hectares have been destroyed and lives have been changed forever.
The particularly horrific aspect to it all is that some of the fires may have been deliberately lit.
My heart goes out to everyone involved. I cannot truly comprehend the horror of losing my home or, worse still, the lives of loved ones to fire. However, I can comprehend the speed that bush fires travel, the fear of being in the path of one and then living in its aftermath.
On the 18th January 2003 I woke up to a normal warm summer's day. I was alone in the house and looking forward to spending the day decorating. In the afternoon I was sitting on the study floor putting together a desk and concentrating on the instructions. I happened to look up at the window and was puzzled to see that the sky was dark as if it was evening. It was only 3.30pm. I got up and walked to the window and saw a black sky awash with an orange tint. It was unusually and eerily beautiful. The video at the end of this post shows what the sky looked like.
I rang a friend to ask if he had heard anything about the weather and I explained what the sky looked like. He said he hadn't heard anything and jokingly asked if I had been drinking.
The doorbell then rang and a neighbour asked if he could borrow a ladder. When I asked him why, he said he needed to clean leaves out of the roof gutter because he had just heard on the radio that there was a fire warning. He was quite relaxed and said there was nothing to worry about.
I turned on the radio. Over the following minutes, the radio announcers were becoming more and more panicked. A bushfire was heading our way. My suburb was surrounded by a pine forest and this was just the fuel a raging fire needed to grow more savage. We were in the path of potential destruction.
We were told to take down curtains. The windows were burning hot already. To put wet towels at exterior doorways to stop the smoke coming into the house. To fill the bathtub and buckets with water because water supplies may be affected. To pack valuables to take with us and to wait in our homes for further evacuation instructions. I worried about the elderly people who may be alone, sleeping or those without radios. What if people were unaware about what was going on?
Minutes seemed to last for hours. The only humorous thing about this episode was the possessions I chose to pack. Rather than take important papers, photo albums, clothes etc. I took two Royal Shakespeare Company framed prints (that are still the most important possession I have for many reasons) bed linen, jewellery and makeup. I clearly have never been the practical sort.
I was not prepared for a fire. The City was clearly not prepared for a fire. I opened the door to check what was happening outside and I was nearly suffocated by the intense heat. Hot red embers flew past me to the wooden floor.
Eventually we were told to leave our homes. It was quick. Some people were on roofs with hoses trying to soak their homes in the hope it would do some good. Some refused to leave because they wanted to do all they could to protect their property.
The fire took hold quickly. When you hear the expression spread like wild fire it is true. Within hours over 230 homes in my suburb were destroyed and four people died. Five hundred homes were lost in the city in total. Almost 70% of the city's pasture, forests (pine plantations) and nature parks were severely damaged.
My house survived but others in my street were burnt to the ground. Fire is such an unpredictable force. It can skip one house but raze houses either side to nothing more than rubble.
Returning to the neighbourhood several days later was like entering a twilight zone. Nothing was familiar. Or real. Gas, water and electricity were off for weeks. Suddenly neighbours were no longer there.
Communities are strong and people rally around to help each other. Humans are resourceful creatures. They rebuild even when the pain lingers.
This latest tragedy brings the memories flooding back to people in my city. And I know that we will be doing all we can to help those affected. This tragedy is by far the worst our country has ever faced. Victims of bush fires usually have no real warning and often no way of fighting such an horrific force. Many people would have been bravely battling to protect their homes and families and would have been trapped by circling flames. How could you outrun a brutish blaze that moved at 120 kmh? Some would have tried to excape in vehicles but then would have been blinded by darkness and thick smoke and ended up in the midst of flames. Whole families have been wiped out. People have lost everything but the clothes on their backs. So many stories and many graphic images will unfold over the coming days.
My prayers and thoughts are with everyone involved, including the brave men and women still fighting the fires.
I made this video some time ago of the 2003 bush fires in my neighbourhood. Nature surely is a force to be reckoned with. There are some moments in life you just have to walk away and cry and this disaster is one of them.
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